The Origins and Development of Yoga in Ancient India

Key information

Start date
End date
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

This course focuses on the development of yoga techniques and philosophy within the brahmanical and tantric traditions of ancient and early medieval India.

The course will begin by considering the iconographic evidence from the Indus Valley civilisation and the oft-repeated argument that yogic postures and symbols are found there; emphasis will be placed on the difficulty in defining continuity of practice on the basis of such evidence and comparing the images in question with other pre-historic images found from well outside India.

The evidence for various forms of askesis found in the early Vedic texts will be explored, particularly those involved in the process of the initiations preceding ritual performances. The concept of tapas, ‘ascetic heat’, will be examined in relation to the accumulation of inner power relevant to some forms of yoga in the later period.

Doctrines of consciousness and its relation to the external world will be discussed on the basis of the early Upanishads before the evidence for a systematised form of yogic practice is presented in relation to the later verse Upanishads and the so-called Yogic Upanishads, as well as in the Bhagavadgītā and the texts included in the mokṣadharma section of the Mahābhārata. Bronkhorst’s theories regarding the origins of ascetic practice and the culture of Magadha will be discussed as it relates to a consideration of the so-called śramaṇa groups.

The relationship between yoga and tantric teachings will be explored, specifically in relation to the cultivation of the body to achieve spiritual goals. This will provide occasion to discuss briefly Indian alchemical theory as well as Ayurvedic medicine and the way these traditions developed and extended relationships between the body and the cosmos known already from the early Upanishads. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras will be studied closely (in English translation), as will the Hathyogapradīpikā, influenced by the Nātha tradition.

Finally, the course will examine the global movement of yoga in the modern world. Prior knowledge of Hinduism is not required since this course includes an introduction to the Hindu traditions of India.

Objectives and learning outcomes

At the end of the course, the student should be able to demonstrate:

  • familiarity with the historical  context in which Indian religious thought and meditational practice developed
  • familiarity with the texts relevant to the study of the development of yogic beliefs and practices
  • knowledge of the variety of yogic beliefs and practices
  • in-depth knowledge of the yoga system of Patanjali
  • an understanding of the place of yoga traditions within the broader context of Ancient Indian society and religion
  • the ability to write coherent research papers related to the materials presented in the course
  • the ability to critically analyse written sources


1 hour lecture and 1 hour seminar each week.

Method of assessment

Coursework: two 3,000 word essays (100%) each essay worth 50%


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules